Things I like about Buenos Aires

Posted April 27, 2011 by amberlakin
Categories: Argentina

  1. The fact that in the apartment next to me lives a practically master pianist and I can hear him playing the piano when I come home every afternoon
  2. Parque las heras, about 6 blocks from my house, where I can go in the afternoons and watch dogs run around, parents walking their children home from school, friends relaxing and couples canoodling
  3. That it’s not uncommon for me to see English Cocker Spaniels in the park that look just like the ghost of my first dog, Annie.
  4. Public transport is unbelievably cheap (thanks, estado nacional!) and runs very frequently.
  5. The fact that I can walk most places when I don’t feel like spending monedas (coins) on the bus
  6. How pretty the 1 peso monedas are, even though there is a shortage of them
  7. How passionate people are about futból (soccer), politics, or whatever they feel like complaining about
  8. My internship, where I keep Julia (who I work with) company and learn how to prepare and appreciate and eventually become addicted to mate, the argentine tea of choice
  9. Unlike in Nicaragua, I’m not a complete outsider for my blonde hair and pale skin
  10. The high quality leather goods, including the adorable little purse and matching wallet that I bought recently for 20 dollars
  11. The Recoleta feria (artisan craft street fair), aka the place where I bought the aforementioned purse and the only place I’ve been able to find cheap, good, street food
  12. My little grupito of friends
  13. The fact that I can walk to all of my classes and they only occur on Tuesdays and Wednesdays
  14. Boquitas Pintadas (Painted Lips), the amazing book I just finished reading for my Spanish class. The funny thing is that in this class I happen to be the only one who even likes the book.
  15. How completely one-of-a-kind and quirky the spanish is, with the unique pronunciation of the y/ll sound, as “sh” (which has been firmly incorporated into my Spanish) and trademark phrases such as “che,” “boludo,” “qué sé yo?” etc…
  16. My primary language is now very firmly Spanglish and that I can say fairly comfortably that I am fluent now (although certainly not perfect).
  17. The beautiful architecture, much of it in French and Classical styles
  18. The political graffiti (as opposed to the gang signs in the U.S.)
  19. The $2.50 pirated, but high quality DVDs you can buy anywhere on the street
  20. There’s a never-ending amount of things for 20-somethings to do
  21. The dulce de leche (like carmel) and helado (ice cream) is amazing, even though I refrain from eating them most of the time
  22. The Onda Vaga concert I went to
  23. My host mom buys me almost more fruit than I could possibly eat
  24. Rules are more guidelines than anything (good and bad!)
  25. There are cafes EVERYWHERE, and I can sit at them for hours and it’s perfectly acceptable
  26. That I can get around with ease without ever feeling disoriented (unlike Nica)
  27. Dogs are well-fed and well-loved, a contrast to the walking rib-cages that were considered pets in Nicaragua
  28. I can have HOT showers! Oh, what a wonderful, wonderful luxury…
  29. Different seasons exist! Not just hot & dry and hot & rainy
  30. The frequency of feriados (national holidays). The Kirchner government has instated many supposedly for the purpose of promoting tourism within the country. There have been at least 3 or 4 four-day weekends since I’ve been here
  31. Living here has rid me of any desire to have children anytime soon. Before, I had a great fondness for little kids, however, lately they have been nothing but an extreme annoyance for me. I will be sitting in a previously calm and quiet coffee shop (something that almost doesn’t exist anywhere in BsAs) trying to do my work when a mother will walk in with her three children. The children will then proceed to yell and run around and my peaceful environment will be gone. It seems like the concept of “inside voices” does not exist here. This also occurs on long, cross-country bus rides. So thank you, unruly, poorly behaved children of Buenos Aires, for convincing me that children are not cute, and in fact, are quite obnoxious. I am much better off with this opinion in the long run.
  32. That when I finally when to the doctor after having a sore throat for almost a month, he takes a look at my throat, comments on how red and swollen it is, checks my breathing, and then prescribes me antibiotics right off the bat. “You don’t need a test?” I ask. “No, it’s only going to cost the both of us money and we’ll end up with the same result.” And as easy as that, I get my prescription.

Cultural Incidents

Posted April 6, 2011 by amberlakin
Categories: Argentina

In Nicaragua, my academic advisor had us write reports on two different cultural incidents. These were supposed to be experiences that we found unsettling, because of the difference in cultures, and then we were supposed to write about why we found them unsettling and what this said about both our culture and Nicaraguan culture. This was an assignment I quite liked and I found to be a valuable way to think about the new things I was seeing, so after my dinner which I describe in this post, I thought I’d replicate this here.

I just had an interesting dinner with my host mom and I think it revealed something about Argentine culture that I hadn’t really picked up on previously, namely that there’s a fair amount of xenophobia. In one dinner conversation, she put down those with darker skin, Chinese and Koreans, not directly, but just by repeating different cultural beliefs held about each of them (and their food, because that’s what we were talking about). But first we were talking about the place on the corner where my friend Sarah and I get choripan and that I shouldn’t eat there anymore because it has a “mala fama” (which I actually believe, because today I felt sick today after eating my choripan) but that’s where all the construction workers in the neighborhood eat. Well, the people there did seem to be construction workers, but the other notable thing about them was that they were all dark-skinned and seemed to be somewhat more mestizo than your average porteño…

Next, we started talking about my friend Sarah, who is Korean, and how she got sick over the weekend after eating at a Korean restaurant (even though the rest of us didn’t get sick). After first scolding me about going to barrio flores at night, she told me that of course Sarah got sick because no one trusts Korean food, that it has a bad reputation here. She said that chinese food also has a bad reputation for not being safe and that she never buys milk at grocery stores owned by Chinese because her friends told her that they turn the fridges off at night. We stayed on this subject for a little bit and it left me feeling uncomfortable.

Now, don’t get me wrong, my host mom isn’t your average redneck racist. On the contrary, I think she’s pretty open-minded, and much more so than my last host mom. Yesterday she asked me what religion I was, and instead of lying and telling her I was Catholic like I did with my last host mom, I just simply told her that I was “nada.” What I found interesting about this conversation was that none of the negative things she said about these foreign businesses were things she came up with herself, she said they were all commonly accepted things. One thing I’ve discovered since I’ve been abroad, is that our culture of overwhelming political correctness does not exist outside of the United States. People here as well as in Nicaragua describe others as negro (black) or gordo (fat), without even beginning to think about it. In some ways, this is a good thing because I think that often in our haste to be politically correct and offend no one, we prevent ourselves from getting to the heart of the issue. But in the case of the things my host mom was saying, I think it can contribute to xenophobia and be divisive. My host mom told me herself she’s never been to a Chinese restaurant or Korean restaurant, and I think this is precisely because she’s heard and believes bad things about them.

Addendum #1: My apologies for the spanglish, folks. This post is pretty much an accurate depiction of how my brain thinks now a days, some thoughts come to me in Spanish before they do in English, oddly enough. I tend to assume that everyone has at least a basic knowledge of Spanish because everyone I talk to in person does, but for those of you who don’t here’s the translations:

choripan: sausage and bread, a lovely lunch because it only costs 7 pesos ( $2.75)

mala fama: literally, bad fame, bad reputation

mestizo: A person who is a mix between the indigenous populations that used to be abundant in Latin America and the Spanish conquerors. In Nicaragua, and I would say the majority of Latin American countries, the majority of the population falls in the mestizo category. In Buenos Aires, the population is mainly white descendants of European immigrants, although outside of the capital there is a larger mestizo population from what I’ve heard.

porteño: A person who is from Buenos Aires

nada: nothing

suave: smooth

Addendum #2: So I realize I didn’t talk about what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis here at all, nor have I posted about it. My apologies, but frankly that kind of thing bores me to write about and I have no motivation to do it. If you go back and look at my Nicaragua posts (which are much more abundant than my Argentina ones), I only ever wrote about new life-changing information, or cultural things I was learning about in Nicaragua and not what I was doing on a day-to-day basis. These sorts of culturally interesting experiences are nowhere near as abundant in Argentina, and thus my posts on this blog have reflected that. Perhaps someday I will update this about my life, although I find that more boring. Do those of you who read this want to hear about that?’Cause personally I find what I wrote way more interesting than “Today I went to class for several hours, I ate empanadas, I got coffee with my friends, I did reading in Spanish, I spent too much time on facebook instead of doing even more reading in Spanish and then I went to sleep and did it all over again.” Well, I suppose sometimes my life is slightly more interesting than that.

Addendum #3: my host mom just came in here right now and asked me if a shirt she’s wearing right now makes her look fatter than usual (direct quote). Oh boy. How does one answer that question? I took advantage of the language barrier and my “desconocimiento” (lack of knowledge? is there a word for that in english???) of the word “tight” and told her I had to look it up on my computer, until she filled it in for me. Haha I think that was rather suave, if I do say so myself. The word for tight is ajustado, I now know.

Bienvenido a Buenos Aires

Posted March 11, 2011 by amberlakin
Categories: Argentina, Transitions

My apologies for the extreme tardiness in this post, but it seems I’ve been lacking in motivation to update this blog. I’ve tried on two separate occasions to write this post, but it’s been a struggle for some reason. Nonetheless, I don’t want to disappoint my three dedicated followers (Mom, Dad and Auntie Bernie), so I thought it best that I get this out before my classes begin on Monday.

Machu Picchu

This time around I had company on my journey to Latin America. My dad and I spent about 48 hours traveling and after a short pit stop in Buenos Aires, we made it to Cuzco, Peru. We spent four, too short, but amazing days in the sacred valley of the Incas, the the highlight being the the day we spent at Machu Picchu. The ruins there were so incredible that I honestly feel that they had to be built by aliens and not hundreds of Inca workers. Each giant piece of stone fit perfectly with another and despite their immense size, were somehow carted high into the inaccessible Andes. Dad and I spent the entire day wandering around the ruins, marveling at their sheer beauty and the improbability of their existence. One of the highlights of our very long day was our hike up Huayna Picchu, the huge mountain directly behind the ruins in the picture of Machu Picchu. I say very long day because Dad and I woke up at 3:45 am to get in line in time to get the tickets to climb up the mountain! In the end, waking up at that hour was worth it because the view from the top was incredible. I think I can speak for both Dad and I when I say we loved our trip to Peru and are already hoping to return.

Since Peru, I’ve been adjusting to life in Buenos Aires. Thankfully, I can say it’s been 10 MILLION times easier than adjusting to life in Nicaragua was. I can say without a doubt that my first two and a half weeks in Nicaragua were the most mentally and physically challenging and disorienting weeks of my life. Transitioning here has been easier for a variety of reasons. First, I already speak a high level of Spanish and am accustomed to living in an environment where I am surrounded by Spanish all of the time. On top of that, I think the accent here is easier to understand. Despite just having taken two months off from Spanish, I understand almost all of what people say to me here, a feat I never managed to accomplish in Nicaragua. My favorite compliment in the world (and one that I get fairly frequently) is being told that I speak Spanish well by native speakers. I have yet to feel overwhelmed by Spanish once here, which is a far cry from my first few weeks in Nicaragua.

I think the second main reasion that I’ve had an easier transition is that I’m already used to living in a foreign country, and a Latin American one at that. I have yet to be truly shocked by anything here because the things that might normally surprise newcomers from the U.S. were present in Nicaragua, only much worse. A frequent conversation topic at my orientation here was the craziness of the traffic here and the dangers it poses to pedestrians. Nonetheless, I’ve yet to encounter a single traffic situation that compares to my daily frogger-like experience crossing the street to get to the University of Central America. What’s more, Buenos Aires has pedestrian stop lights at all major intersections, something that is absent to my knowledge in Managua. This theme continues with a variety of other things such as piropos (catcalls while walking down the street) that while present, are nowhere near as obnoxious or as constant as they were in Managua. Buenos Aires is a much more developed city than Managua and despite being in the same geopolitical region, it’s really not fair to compare the two.

In general, things have been great here. Buenos Aires is a modern, international city full of culture and with something always going on. I’m living in a good location that very accessible to the rest of the city. I have one host mom and she’s great. She’s really laid back and talkative and I already feel more comfortable with her than I did with my Nicaraguan host mom. The food’s generally been good and includes dinners with salads and real green lettuce, which I lacked in Managua. I’ve also been happy to discover that trying to blend in here is not a lost cause from the start. While my somewhat ghostly white skin means that I’m paler than the vast majority of the residents here, there a good number of natural blonde inhabitants of Buenos Aires (including my host mother).

Since I’ve arrived in Buenos Aires, I have had a very long orientation period mandated by my study abroad program. This week this finally comes to a close and on Monday I start class. Aside from the Human Rights concentration run by my program and my required Spanish class, I’ve elected three classes at the University of Buenos Aires, called Governance and Development, Latin American Politics and Changes in the Economic System and Global Crisis. I will choose one of these classes after I go to them next week. I’m actually excited for classes to start because I haven’t been in class since the end of October. Soon my life here will start to develop more of a rhythm and I’ll get more settled in.

In Limbo

Posted January 30, 2011 by amberlakin
Categories: Argentina, Nicaragua, Transitions, USA

My interim period between Nicaragua and Argentina is finally coming to a close, with only 12 days left until my dad and I leave for South America. Surprisingly, transitioning back to the U.S. has been so much easier than I ever thought it would be. On one level, I think this is because I’m not back here permanently yet — there’s no need for me to fully adjust back to life in the States because I know that I am taking off again soon. The other reason, however, that my reverse culture shock has been largely non-existent is due to the complete lack of similarities between Nicaragua and the United States. It’s difficult to keep the knowledge, the way of life, the events of last semester in the front of my mind and as a part of my life when there’s nothing to remind me of them. It’s as if last semester was one long 3.5 month dream. At the time, it was the realest thing I had ever known, but now, I’m struggling to integrate it in my life here when amongst the development of the United States, it seems like a place like Nicaragua cannot possibly exist.

So, I’ve felt my memories and my resolutions slowly melting out of my mind, almost as if there is something of my old way of life that resents this new reality and is trying to prevent it from taking hold. I think this is what has caused me to have second thoughts about going to Argentina in the last few weeks. I’ve realized that I really do have a lovely life here in the States. I am privileged to have a family that loves me, access to an unbelievably comfortable lifestyle and wonderful friends whom I love a lot. This comfort and stability is intoxicating; I think it’s probably not something most people in the world willingly give up or seek to avoid. Yet, one of our lectures in El Salvador spoke to my group about a privileged feeling of discomfort that is the closest you’ll get to knowing what the poor feel. This discomfort has been missing from my life since I returned and I think it’s absence is the culprit for forgetting about Nicaragua. As I have readjusted to the comfortable life again, the semester of unknowns that lies ahead of me in Argentina had grown less and less appealing. I am finally, after a few weeks of hesitance, looking forward to Argentina again, because I think it will be where I find my middle ground between the at times overwhelming discomfort of Nicaragua and the extreme ease of my life in the United States. I felt so alive in Nicaragua, and I’m looking forward to finding that feeling again.

It’s now been over a month since I’ve been back in the States, yet my return has not implied an end to traveling. My first two weeks back in the States were spent celebrating Christmas with my immediate family in California. Presents were exchanged, cookies were made (and eaten!) and I reconnected with people I had been out of touch with for the past three and a half months. My family and I then flew back to the Midwest to visit our extended family. I saw my grandparents in Iowa for the first time in a year and a half, then we spent New Year’s in Omaha, Nebraska with my dad’s large family. I loved playing hide-and-seek with my little cousins in my aunt Bernie’s beautiful old farm house, playing hockey on the ice-rink in my aunt and uncle’s backyard and of course spending time with my family members whom I hadn’t seen in several years. I then returned to Ventura for another week or so, before I visited Atlanta and my college friends for the first time in over 6 months. My 10 days bumming around there were nothing short of wonderful. While it was strange to be at Emory at the start of a new semester and not be starting classes, it made me fall in love with my friends and the people in my life there all over again. Now, I’m back home in Ventura and I anticipate that the rest of my time here will be spent preparing for my next semester abroad.

In about mid-February, my dad and I are leaving for a trip to South America together. We’re flying to Buenos Aires to drop some of my stuff off, then from there, we are flying to Cuzco, Peru to visit Inca ruins in the Sacred Valley, including the famous Machu Picchu. Then, we fly back to Buenos Aires to spend a few days together there before my program starts. My dad will fly home again and I’ll move in with my host family for five months of living in Buenos Aires. I’ll be participating in IFSA-Butler’s Argentine Universities Program and taking part in their Human Rights concentration. This means that I’ll be taking a Spanish class, a class or two at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), a class run by my program that will focus on Human Rights, and then an internship with a human rights related non-profit in Buenos Aires. I’m certain that my next five months will be very different from my semester in Nicaragua, yet I’m hoping that they will be equally enjoyable.


Posted December 16, 2010 by amberlakin
Categories: Nicaragua, Photos

I finally have my pictures from the trip online!!! Click HERE for the link.

ISP — three weeks overdue!

Posted December 16, 2010 by amberlakin
Categories: Campo, Nicaragua

November 20, 2010

Rosa Amelia and Family

Thus far, my ISP has been my favorite part of my time in Nicaragua, which is saying something because I’ve had a lot of experiences here that I’ve really truly loved. My days are no longer filled with class; instead, I spend them conducting and analyzing research. But really, it isn’t fair to describe what I am doing in that way — I’m basically hanging out and observing life most of the time, then when the four women I’m interviewing have some free time (which is rarely, it seems), I interview them about their life and how it’s changed. The community I’m living in is called Jocote, which is located in the undeveloped mountainous region of Northern Nicaragua. Although the community I’m living in lacks electricity, running water or any sort of telephone signal, it’s in such a beautiful location, nestled in a valley between mountains and full of trees. But more than anything, the family I’m living with is absolutely lovely. The matriarch of the family is named Rosa Amelia and she’s the primary focus of my research.

Rosa Amelia is absolutely the definition of an empowered woman. From what she tells me, when she was younger, she was timid, had low self-confidence and was forced to stay in the house all day and take care of the kids. Knowing her now, it’s hard to believe this woman ever existed. She confidently explains to me how women have the same right as men to the resources within a house, or to decide when or if they want to have sex. Her life, along with the lives of the other four women I’m interviewing, have been irrevocably changed by the work of the Fundación entre Mujeres (Foundation between Women), or FEM. The women that have been organized in this community form an organic coffee cooperative and work land purchased for them by the FEM. It’s been really amazing being here and hearing and seeing how much their life has improved due to their empowerment. This community is the prime example of the Girl Effect — namely, that when you empower women and give them control of economic resources, the quality of life of the entire family improves because their priority is the family.

This experience is so wonderful because it’s finally exactly what I came to Nicaragua to do — hang out with the people and speak Spanish all the time. Rosa Amelia has an energetic, outgoing 17-year old daughter that I spend a lot of time talking to. She also has a 15-year old son with an immense fondness for latin pop and reggaeton. My alarm clock usually consists of him loudly singing along with the radio at 6:30 in the morning. As a result, I have forcibly developed a fondness for reggaeton artists such as Pitbull.

Of course, like everything I’ve experienced in Nicaragua, the good is also laced with the uncomfortable. I think if I were to live here for a year, I would waste away because of the food. It’s not that I don’t get enough of it, it’s just that I don’t have an appetite for endless starchy things such as rice, tortillas and yuca (which I think is called cassava in English?) The other day, I had the fairly scarring experience of eating a chicken that was walking around in the morning, then after cries of pain and blood on the kitchen floor, it was my lunch. As a result of the food here, my stomach’s constantly been in an awkward balance of always and never hungry and the skin-and-bones dog is sure to gain weight because I always sneak him what I can’t bear to eat of my food. The only upside on the food situation is the amount of fresh, delicious organic coffee I drink everyday that’s grown just 100 yards from the house.

Other uncomfortable experiences have included having a swarm of flies attack every time I go to the latrine and waking up and discovering a new patch of little red bug bites on my body somewhere every day. I’m thinking I’ll be covered in little red dots by the time I leave in 10 days. I think if there’s anything I’ve learned in Nicaragua, it’s to be painfully, extremely easy-going and low maintenance when the situation demands it. Yet even the food and the bugs aren’t enough to knock this down from the number one spot, which is a testament to how wonderful this family and the information I’m learning are.

November 28, 2010



My time here continues to be lovely. There’s certainly been rough spots, like Thanksgiving when I was more homesick than I ever thought I’d be, or times when I’ve really missed speaking English because it’s so much easier. Although I’ll be ready to return to Managua in two days (i.e. my wonderful bed without bed bugs and shower), I’m so glad that I’ve had this experience.

On Thursday, Rosa Amelia’s granddaughter, Jenni, came to stay at the house, She’s 7, full of life, so intelligent and always talks my ear off about whatever comes to her mind (although I only understand 70% of her little kid Spanish). When she’s not outside playing kickball with her friends, she’s usually following me around and distracting me from my mountain of work. Since my hair reminds her of doll hair, I’ve become her muñequita (dolly) and as such have recently been sporting ridiculous braids in my hair. I’m extremely fond of her, as she is of me. While I spend time with her, I can’t help but think of my other little friend I made the last time I was in the campo, Magali. I can imagine what she’s doing now — following her mother around while she hauls water, shelling coffee with her sister, maybe playing with her old, falling apart toy doll. Meanwhile, Jenni’s been able to spend the whole day playing, fully enjoying her childhood. There’s really not too much difference in their backgrounds: both have families from the campo of Nicaragua from the poorest of backgrounds and both live in houses without running water or electricity. Yet while the outlook for Magali’s future is fairly grim, in Jenni’s, I see so much hope. Jenni’s so smart and she’s learned so much in school already and she’s only 7. Often, instead of waiting to express herself until after she’s finished a bite of food, she’ll write what she wants to say on a piece of paper. Jenni’s family’s standard of living has risen considerably since her grandmother, Rosa Amelia, started working with the FEM. Rosa Amelia’s life has changed due to the fact that the FEM empowered her economically with her coffee farm, but more importantly, the FEM helped her in ideological empowerment. Although Rosa Amelia still has a spouse, she is the one who makes decisions about her life, who owns the farm, who was able to support her oldest daughter in finishing high school and then getting a bachelor’s degree, and now both of them are able to give Jenni a great chance to succeed. This family’s doing so well and has improved so much more than the average Nicaraguan family ever improves in one or two generations.

So many of the things I’ve learned and seen in Nicaragua have made me depressed, made me angry, made me wonder what’s wrong with the world. At times I’ve thought that with its impoverished people and corrupt elites, there’s really no hope for Nicaragua. This is why I’m so glad that I’ve had this experience at the end of my time here, because this family is my hope for Nicaragua. I have proof that with the help of wonderful non-profits such as FEM, lives can change — and change dramatically at that!


Posted November 8, 2010 by amberlakin
Categories: Nicaragua

FEM's house in Jocote

On Wednesday, I start the final leg of my time in Nicaragua — my independent study project. Over the course of the next month my life will be dedicated to one subject — women’s empowerment. The central theme I am investigating is the process by which women develop three related characteristics of internal empowerment:

  1. Consciousness of the existence of gender discrimination and their own disempowerment
  2. The belief that they are entitled to basic rights, including the right to control their own lives
  3. The belief that they are capable of controlling their own lives

I’m planning on accomplishing this by writing life histories of three different women and analyzing their stories for critical moments and trends in their process of empowerment. During this time, I’ll be living in the same community with these women in a rural community called Jocote, outside of Estelí. As of yet, I don’t know the level of development of this community, but it’s very possible I’ll be living in a place without running water or electricity for three weeks. I’ll be spending my days with my informants and plan to have five interviews with each of them by the end of my time there. I’ll be completely on my own for the first time since I’ve been in Nicaragua without any of the support networks I’ve had the rest of the time. My English is sure to get worse because I’ll be speaking nothing but Spanish for these three weeks. At the end of my time there, I’ll be spending a week writing a 25-30 page paper based on the results of my research.

Quite frankly, right now I’m terrified about this project. This is ironic because only a few weeks ago when I finally decided what I was doing this project on, I was ridiculously excited. But I guess it’s all the unknowns that are almost here that are scaring me. What will be the level of development of this town? Will my research go well? What if I never feel comfortable there? What if I end up being really lonely? I think deep down I know that once I get started I’ll be fine, but for now with so many what ifs so close, I’m trying my hardest not to panic and am not succeeding very well.

So, these next three weeks my connection to the internet and the outside world will be very limited if present at all. I’m planning on writing  more blogs afterward, but for now this is a brief hiatus.